words and photos by Ed Blomfield in Vancouver
So thanks to the lovely peeps at Oakley yours truly landed a ticket to the men's halfpipe final last night. It was a night I will never forget.
All private transport around Vancouver has been restricted so to get up to nearby Cypress mountain we took a subway, a ferry across the harbour and then a bus. Contrary to the snidey British newspaper commentary about the organisation of these Games (which has really upset the locals over here) we found the whole thing pretty slick. To my mind, London 2012 will be doing well to match this set-up, most of all the incredibly friendly attitude of everyone from the volunteers to the bus drivers to the security dudes.
As the crowd trudged up to the venue there was a palpable buzz around the place, and by the time the grandstand itself hove into view - perched on a steep hillside - I was wetting my pants with anticipation. I'm sure the Beeb have been doing a good job of getting across the atmosphere but there's nothing can prepare you for entering a sea of happy Canadians waving flags, swinging cowbells and donning maple leaves.
Inside the grandstand we found seats near the Kilner clan, surely the most vocal supporters in the whole place. Some of you might not know that Ben's parents are from Yorkshire, so despite the tartan theme and the Scottish accents amongst the crew, he's a Great British competitor in the purest sense of the word.
Ed Leigh came over to us to film a link for the BBC, to cries of "There's only one Ed Leigh, one Ed Leigh-eeee!" and "Freeeddddooooom!" (a reference to this classic piece of commentary from Turin). It was hilarious, and Ed was clearly loving the fact the best fans in the whole place were from the UK.
It felt so special to be sat alongside such a proud family as they watched Ben successfully achieve his target of a top 20 finish and progress to the semi-finals. Kil-dog was going absolutely huge on every hit, and although he was clearly disappointed to fall on both runs as he pushed for a spot in the final, his teary mum and sister was all the proof you needed that he hadn't let anyone down.
Having been knocked out, Ben came to join us in the stands to watch the rest of the action - yet another highlight of a special evening. It was kind of surreal to see his Olympic bib amongst the flags and facepaint of the regular crowd.
"It was an amazing experience," Ben told me. "I was a bit bummed about the semis but seeing these lot put me in happy spirits again."
Rumours had been flying around town that with all the recent rain the pipe was in shitty condition, but Ben revealed that the shapers had turned it around in the last 24 hours to produce one of the best transitions he'd ever ridden.
"It's pretty quiet up there [at the top]. There's a minimal amount of people, just the athletes and the coaches. It's a bit of a strange atmosphere. Everyone's still high-fiving each other and supporting each other, but once you're dropping in you've gotta put the game face on. I could hear my supporters though - they were screaming loud!"
As the finals got underway all eyes were predictably on Shaun White. Would the most famous face in snowboarding live up to the hype? Would he bust out his new signature tricks - the double cork and the double McTwist (newly christened the 'Tomahawk') - and claim the gold he so desperately desired? Or would there be an upset? Could the likes of BEO Champ Peetu Piiroinen or fellow yanks Scotty Lago and Louie Vito pull something out the bag? At the frankly ridiculous odds of 25/1, I'd personally had a cheeky flutter on Peetu.
In the end, of course, it was silly to think Shaun might do something so human as fall over. He absolutely smashed the competition with two nigh-on flawless runs which you can read more about here. Watching him in the flesh, two things strike you: First, he goes soooooo much bigger than everyone else. In this sense, he's a bit like Terje Haakonsen back in the 90s - literally head and shoulders above the field. His backside airs on the first hit were just, well... humungous. Check this one out:
Second, he has the uncanny ability to soak up the heaviest of landings without it upsetting his momentum. When other riders land a little flat or scuff a landing, they tend to lose speed into their next hit, struggle to get the trick round clean and generally lose their rhythm. When Shaun lands flat (and trust me, not all his tricks find the tranny perfectly) he slaps his board down with an audible crack and somehow powers through to the opposite wall without a flinch.
That said, a quick word about Kazu. Yes, he was as amazing in real life as he looked on TV. Absolutely ma-hoosive (big as Shaun, actually) and so stylie. Clearly, a total dude. Read our full take on him here and have a look at these snapshots...
With the title in the bag before he even dropped in for his last run, it would have been easy for Shaun White to take it easy. If there's one thing the past few months have shown, it's that double corks and double McTwists are not without consequences if you get them wrong. Why tempt fate now? Personally, I was half expecting a series of big old straight airs and perhaps a slash to finish off as in Turin. But Shaun had other ideas. The way he saw it, why work so hard to perfect these tricks for the Olympics if you're not going to unleash them at the ultimate moment? Cue the best run of the night and a 'Tomahawk' on the last hit. Cue a score of 48.4, a hurled snowboard and stars-and-stripes hooplah.
Shaun's former sponsors at Volcom have produced a special board sticker recently that I saw a few of at Whistler. It says: KP - This Run is for You. With Kevin Pearce - White's leading rival for gold until a horrific accident on new year's eve - still recovering in hospital in Colorado, I hope that this one was for him too.
So... the night certainly belonged to Mr White, but my own memories are of lots more besides: the stomping of thousands of feet on the bleachers, as Canadian Justin Lamoureux prepared to drop; the maple leaf mittens on every other spectator; the cans of beer and hot dogs; Kazu's 30 ft chicken wing mctwists; the aussie crew in front supporting their boy Ben Mates; and of course the tub thumping Kilner clan.
Last word goes to Ben himself:
"The opening ceremony was a massive thrill - to walk out in front of a 70,000 strong crowd. And I've been blown away by the whole event. I would happily go through that four-year training cycle to experience this again."